Where to Begin with Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”?

Last night I finished reading Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia.  I don’t know where to start in my praise and reflection.

I might begin by remembering my youthful imagining of a Shakespearean tragedy titled “Nicholas II”, a grand, dark romp featuring an over-the-top mad monk named Rasputin, a bumbling, soliloquizing Tsar, a flamboyant rhetorician Lenin . . . And I might end by saying, although The Coast of Utopia is about different revolutions in different countries and a different Tsar named Nicholas, Stoppard has produced something very like the Shakespearean tragedy I had imagined, but far grander and far more intimately human than I could have dreamt as a teen.

I could begin by mentioning that I’ve seen only a few of Stoppard’s plays produced — The Real Thing, On The Razzle, Rock and Roll, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, of course — but then, rare is the person who has seen every Shakespeare play they’ve read.  Experience has shown me that Stoppard’s plays work beautifully both on stage and in the study.

Maybe I should begin with Stoppard’s fascinating return to the trilogy convention of Classical Greek theatre, for, is The Coast of Utopia not a modern Oresteia, three linked plays laying before us the personal tragedy of Herzen’s life and the parallel social tragedy of Europe in the middle years of the 19th century?

And shouldn’t I also mention that this trilogy of two act plays together make a six act play, passingly similar to Shakespeare’s five act structure? Of course, at nine hours, the plays are more of a marathon than any of Shakespeare’s single plays. But then the Henrys Parts I, II, III, etc. come to mind . . .

I’d have to get to Stoppard’s stunning erudition and wit, the intellectual belly-laugh inducing throw away quips, and the earthy ones as well (I’m thinking of the suppository in Salvage, here).  And Stoppard’s exquisitely sensitive rendering of the aging of thought, of the growth — and withering — of the revolutionary’s mind and of the revolution.

And, of course, The Coast of Utopia‘s subject is also the little considered or remembered foundation of the modern West, the age between the American and French Revolutions and the Russian Revolution, the aftermath of Napoleon and the time of his lesser namesakes.  Marx struts across the stage for a moment or two and then hides out in the British Museum, while the men and women who actually make revolutions shuffle through time in shabby clothes and chase unruly children, trying to make marriages work and households get by while struggling to change the world.

I don’t know where to start in my praise of and reflection on The Coast of Utopia, so I’ve started a few different places.  I recommend a careful reading and rereading of the plays.  I’m certain deep reflection will follow, and then more praise. The Coast of Utopia is a stunning piece of work. I suspect reflection on and praise of it will never be finished.

The Coast of Utopia is published by Faber & Faber

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